U.S. Intel Leak Suggests Ukraine Ship is Sinking
A leak that originated in a Discord chat room is sending shockwaves across the Atlantic.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with coining the idiom “a small leak will sink a great ship." Though Franklin was talking about unnecessary spending, it holds water for most anything in business and politics. It seems there has been a leak regarding Ukraine’s odds in its ongoing war with Russia—and it's not a small one.
A leak of classified documents, some labeled “top secret,” from U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Ukraine could fall “well short” of its ambitions with the much anticipated counteroffensive it plans to mount this spring. The U.S. intelligence assessment warns that difficulties for Ukraine massing troops (Ukraine is basically operating with a conscripted fighting force), as well as mustering enough ammunition and equipment (almost completely provided by Western nations), could lead to “force generation and sustainment shortfalls,” that result in only “modest territorial gains.”
The New York Times, the first to break the story, said many of the documents were labeled “SECRET.” Another fifty, according to the Wall Street Journal, were marked “TOP SECRET.”
The leak, something political observers have become accustomed to especially in the Trump years, did not come out in the corporate press from an unnamed source or a “whistle blower.” Rather, the leaked documents were posted on Discord, a gaming and chat platform. Initial reports suggested the documents were posted in early March, but the latest report from the Washington Post on the origins of the Ukraine leak suggests the leaker was allegedly posting sensitive and classified information on Discord going back to last year.
The leaker, with the screen name OG, was the leader of a private Discord clubhouse called “Thug Shaker Central,” which started as a more private, intimate chat room for OG and others who initially met on a different Discord server for fans of Oxide, a YouTube personality who makes videos about guns and military regalia. Beyond a more intimate chatroom, OG and the others wanted a better place to talk about video game strategy.
On Thursday afternoon, the New York Times reported it had identified OG as 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard who worked in intelligence. Unnamed officials told the Times that they wanted to talk to Teixeira in connection to the leak, but the FBI, who spent the last few days attempting to hunt the alleged leaker down, did not previously list Teixeira as a suspect. Nor did it provide comment for the Times report. Shortly after the Times's report, Teixeira was arrested in a home raid by federal authorities. Whether or not this was a result of the Times's report or based on more information obtained by federal authorities in their own investigation remains unknown.
The Discord group reportedly headed by OG—whether it turns out that user is Teixeira or not—had about two dozen members, according to the Washington Post. Conversations mostly centered around video games, guns, military gear, memes, and God. During the pandemic, the Discord channel became a hub of activity, and Thug Shaker Central became a tight-knit group. “They watched movies together, joked around and prayed,” the Washington Post reports.
At some point last year, though the Washington Post does not specify when, OG began posting long messages full of military and intelligence acronyms. Though the members of the group the Washington Post interviewed respected OG, not many read the post. Yet OG continued posting similar messages regularly on the Discord channel for months. OG suggested the posts were based on classified documents OG had come into contact with during his work on a “military base.”
OG explained to his Thug Shaker Central compatriots that he was going about providing this information in this manner because he spent some of his work day in a secure facility that prohibits staff from bringing in cell phones or other electronic devices. As he posted the information, he would translate some of the jargon and acronyms for the users of the Discord channel—”NOFORN” for example, means no sharing with foreign nationals.
The transcriptions, according to the Post, contained a trove of sensitive information all their own and included information about the whereabouts and movements of high-ranking members of the government, the status of some military forces, and efforts by foreign governments to interfere in elections. But OG apparently got upset at the members of the Discord channel who were not paying as much attention to his posts as they were posts about YouTube videos about military gear.
To spark interest among the Discord community, OG started posting photos of the documents, rather than transcribing them, late last year. The Post claims its investigation reviewed 300 photos of classified documents, many of which have not been made public. Several appear to have been taken on the same pieces of furniture, and near the same time, given that the same extraneous items, such as Gorilla Glue and nail clippers, could be seen in the margins of the images. Some of the documents included charts of battlefield conditions in Ukraine, images of Ukrainian targets after Russian missile strikes, aerial photographs of the Chinese spy balloon that floated above the U.S. earlier this year, as well as information on North Korean nuclear capabilities and strategy.
Bizarrely enough, this is not the first time chat rooms for gaming have been used to leak sensitive information. Last year, a user posted real classified information on British Challenger 2 tanks. The user, according to the Wall Street Journal, was an avid player of the combat game WarThunder. In 2021, another gamer posted a classified manual for France’s Leclerc tanks.
Despite posting this sensitive information for months, it all stayed contained on Thug Shaker Central. But in late February, a teenager in the group posted several of the photographed documents on a separate Discord server devoted to Filipino gaming YouTuber “wow_mao.” By March 4, other documents posted by OG were appearing in a Discord server called “Minecraft Earth Map.” Though the documents were now spreading online, the U.S. government would not be aware of the leak for another month.
Authorities were clued in to the leak after a number of Russian Telegram channels closely covering the war posted the documents on April 5, according to the Netherlands-based investigative outlet Bellingcat. One of the Telegram channels where these documents appeared was named “Donbass Devushka.” The documents also spread to other platforms, such as 4chan, before ending up on more mainstream platforms like Twitter.
Other reports from the Washington Post indicate that some of the documents appear edited to give Russia a better outlook, specifically in terms of casualty numbers. Casualty numbers for both sides in the conflict mostly remain a black box. Others, the Post reports, seem unedited, though reporting has not specified whether these documents were edited originally by OG or by others who eventually got hold of the document photographs.
Just before the New York Times broke the story on the leak, OG posted “frantic[ally]” on the Discord channel, a minor in the group told the Washington Post. It was “unusual for him”: “He said something had happened, and he prayed to God that this event would not happen.… But now it’s in God’s hands,” the Discord user said. In his final message to the Discord channel, OG told community members to “keep low and delete any information that could possibly relate to him,” the young Discord user said.
Though there is an active FBI manhunt for OG and the Pentagon and Justice department are launching their own probes into the leak, the young Discord member claims he has been able to keep in contact with OG. According to the young Discord member, OG is “fully aware of what’s happening and what the consequences may be. He’s just not sure on how to go about solving this situation.” When the Post asked if the young man would divulge any more information on OG, such as his real name and which state he lived in, he refused, as did another member of the Discord server whom the Post interviewed to corroborate the story.
The young Discord user also said he would not divulge OG’s identity or location to law enforcement until he is captured or can flee the United States. Currently, no members of law enforcement have reached out to the minor or his parents. “I think I might be detained eventually,” the teen told the Post. “I think there might be a short investigation on how I knew this guy, and they’ll try to get something out of me. They might try to threaten me with prison time if I don’t reveal their identity.” When asked why he’d aid OG maintain his freedom, he reportedly replied, “He was my best friend.”
In the aftermath of the leak, Western leaders and governments have come out to deny the validity of the leak’s contents.
South Korean officials, for example, have claimed the documents are “utterly false.” The leaked documents outline South Korea’s internal deliberations over providing Ukraine with artillery shells. South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup reportedly spoke on the phone with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Tuesday and agreed that “quite a few of the documents in question were fabricated.”
Though the top man at the Pentagon came to a spoken agreement with the South Korean defense minister over the validity of the documents, officials surrounding him at the Pentagon claim that the leaked documents appear legitimate.
Members of the opposition in South Korea’s government have denounced the U.S. for spying on the South Korean government. Whether or not the South Korean opposition believes the U.S. spied on South Korea or their warnings are meant to serve as a warning to Washington remains unclear. Nevertheless, South Korean Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung reportedly said, “If it is true that they have spied on us, it is a very disappointing act that undermines the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which is based on mutual trust.” South Korea, however, will not be looking to sever their alliance with the U.S., as the government said it would be "compromising [for South Korea's] national interest."
For its part, Ukraine did not outright deny the legitimacy of the leaked documents. Rather, Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential advisor, told members of the press that the documents “have no operational significance” and “have no impact on the front line or the planning of the General Staff.” Nevertheless, as soon as news of the leak broke, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken extra, unspecified precautions to protect state secrets.
Jonathan Askonas, an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, told The American Conservative via email that, “By all indications, the leaks are legitimate.” Nevertheless, Askonas added that some of the documents seem to be edited: For example, “leaked documents showing massive Ukrainian casualties were quite transparently a misinformation effort by pro-Russian internet personalities.”
Furthermore, Askonas said that, despite the Ukrainian government’s claims that the leak has little to no impact on the planned counteroffensive, “they may prove quite damaging as to the war effort, because they reveal details about Ukraine's planned counteroffensives and may help the Russian military secure their signals communications better.”
Yet “the actual leaked documents show a favorable loss-exchange ratio for Ukraine, in line with what has previously been revealed,” Askonas continued. “That is not to suggest that even that favorable ratio is sustainable in the long-term (the leaked documents contain lots of details about the massive Western effort propping up Ukraine). But I haven't seen anything that reveals a secret American assessment of Ukraine and its prospects. Given its political sensitivity, such an assessment might even be more compartmentalized than the leaked documents (such assessments during the Vietnam War were).”
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If the leaked documents are accurate, Center for Renewing American Vice President Dan Caldwell told TAC via email that they “seem to confirm what has already been widely reported: there is no clear path towards a decisive victory for either Russia or Ukraine.”
“In addition, the documents also provide more evidence that the United States cannot continue to sustain its current level of military support for Ukraine for much longer—we are simply running out of ammunition to give them and our industrial base cannot keep up with current levels of munition expenditures,” Caldwell added. “All of this makes it especially foolish for the United States and NATO to continue pursuing policies that prolong the war while raising the risk of a direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia."
American policy makers should take Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom to heart. This is no small leak, and Ukraine is no great ship. And they should pay extra attention to the line that precedes Franklin’s famous idiom. All those “little expenses” in Ukraine are adding up—as of January, more than $75 billion has been dispensed to Ukraine, and much more appropriated, for the war effort. Yet, the leak suggests that American politicians, military leaders, and spooks all acknowledge in private what they refuse to say in public: A Ukrainian victory is anything but certain, and increasingly becoming unlikely.